Tuesday, July 15, 2008

When Snakes Have Lines

I recall a conversation with a good friend back in 1968 when the presidential choices boiled down to Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey or George Wallace. The question was whether or not Nixon and Humphrey, as the major candidates, would have a debate and, if so, whether they'd permit Wallace to join them. "Oh no," my friend protested, "they can't let Wallace in there. The snake would have all the best lines."

The debate never took place and Nixon pulled out a squeaker of a win, although it probably would have been much larger had Wallace not been on the ballot. My friend's words, however, have stayed with me.

The best candidate, be it in politics, business or life in general, does not always have the best lines. It is worth considering why some opponents are so effective while their (perhaps) wiser opponents are grappling for a better way to express complex points. I've concluded that the snakes have an advantage because:

  • They are not hindered by an allegiance to accuracy. Broadbrush statements are boldly made and the opponent who attempts to dissect the comment to reveal the inaccuracy then comes across as a green eyeshade accountant.

  • Their willingness to make strong statements makes them appear to be forceful, especially in contrast to a more restrained opponent who is fumbling through an "On the one hand and on the other hand" routine.

  • They shamelessly evoke emotion. Remember the old sales line about people buying on emotion and justifying with logic? These characters don't hesitate to employ the most brazen appeals to emotion. (May an alarm bell go off every time a politician talks about doing something "for the children.")

  • They play intimidation games, such as interrupting or ignoring common ground rules, and they know that audiences often favor an unfair blow if it is wrapped in sufficient wit.

How do we counter the snakes? Several strategies:

  • Identify their tactics as soon as they are employed. Let their methods become an issue. Doing so raises legitimate questions about their credibility.

  • Make sure that you can summarize your good points as deftly as the snake does dubious ones.

  • Don't assume that the snake's positions are completely without merit. They would not resonate with the audience if there were no merit. See if you can adopt the worthy points while avoiding the poor ones.

Finally, consider the possibility that the other person might not be a snake. Perhaps you are regarding eloquence as deceit.

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